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Herzog & de Meuron: Completed works Vol. 4

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Herzog & De Meuron, 1997 - 2001, The Complete Works Volume 4

Gerhard Mack, Birkhäuser, £90, 352pp


Birkhäuser’s Herzog & De Meuron, The Complete Works Vol 4, continues to track the output of this extraordinary firm which first emerged in 1978. Where Volumes 1-3 document the firm’s early work - intellectual, serious and condensed - Volume reveals a quite different focus.

The obvious difference with the early volumes and the most recent is the shift in scale of the projects themselves, though the exhaustive exploration process that typifies the firm is still there. Volumes 1-2 in particular, which described small, intense and intimate pieces of work through vigorous sketches and rough models, revealed a private struggle with architecture at a fundamental level. The new volume however illustrates a breadth and range of work scattered across the globe that makes a provincial architect retreat into a critical gloom.

Gerhard Mack’s intelligent, revealing and readable text, Traits of Topographical Architectureliterally grounds the work. His notion of topography becomes the critical device that binds the seemingly unconnected projects together.

The projects selected for illustration begin with the competition entry for MoMA in New York and finish with the beautiful Allianz Stadium in Munich. Two projects exemplify the difficulty in tying these architectural giants down yet they are related by a reflected and inverted symmetry. Project 165, a rehab centre for brain injuries, Basel, is a rare sympathetic and dignified essay in hospital design. A series of courtyards are rendered in timber, as if Japan has come to Basel. This nurtured plan contrasts and compliments project 178 and the polished celebrity of the Prada Aoyama in Tokyo. It has a Swiss-like crystalline precision; Basel goes to Japan.

The huge amount of work undertaken within the period covered by Volume 4 has caused the designers of the Birkhäuser volumes to depart from the format of the first three. Gerhard Mack in his introduction explains: ‘’The departure from the previous layout offers readers a whole new approach to each of the projects, ranging from analytical study to casual observation.’’ The casual observation is apparently enabled through the grouping of all scale drawings of the projects together and also through a further compilation of sumptuous full-page photographs of selected projects. This book however is not for casual dipping into; like the work it describes it is demanding and at times difficult.

Volume 4 devotes more text to each project by dropping the german translations which appeared in earlier volumes. But the size of the photographs, drawings and sketches within the individual project sections have been radically reduced. In my mind the early volumes are more engaging, the drawings and photographs are larger and therefore more accessible giving rise to immediate reflection. In the latest volume some of the drawings and photos within the project sections are so small that to my aging eyes they are all but useless and I would have preferred all the photos and drawings of a particular project to be included in the individual project section. However I do value the greater number of project photographs and the increase in explanatory texts.

What differentiates these volumes from El Croquis, that other splendid series tracking Herzog & De Meuron, is the sense that the Birkhäuser volumes are closest to the work itself. El Croquis brilliantly and more immediately covers the same ground but not the same territory. The Birkhäuser layout is not glossy or entirely predictable but then again neither is their work. The Birkhäuser volumes have an aura that fits the particular world that Herzog & De Meuron explore. They are closer to artists’ books than the usual architectural monograph - they feel like multiples. It is obvious that Herzog de Meuron has been directly involved in their creation. (Indeed their late friend and collaborator Remy Zaugg redesigned Volume 3). In a way it feels as if you are acquiring a work by the architects themselves 

Future volumes will set even more challenges for Birkhäuser and Gerhard Mack; the scale and number of projects seems to be increasing exponentially. Curiously Volume 4 finishes with a number of quite extraordinary images of the Beijing National stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games. It is as if the publishers could either not wait or that they are fearful we do not have the patience to hold out for further volumes.

With its stupendous bird’s nest form, the Olympic stadium is a building as an event. One whose image and life faded with the Games and as the world financial crash suddenly exposed the naked excess of global practice. We will have to wait for later volumes to see how our heroes have faired in these less than secure architectural times.

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